Hazrat Rabi’a al-Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (ra) also known as Rabi’ah al-Basri was a Sufi saint from Iraq and is considered to be the first female Sufi Saint of Islam, the first in a long line of female Sufi mystics. She lived during the 8th Century and was born in Basra, a seaport in southern Iraq where she spent the vast majority of her life. Much of her early life is narrated by Hazrat Fariduddin Attar (ra), a later Sufi saint and poet, who used earlier sources. She did not leave any written works herself.
Hazrat Rabia Basri (ra) is remembered to this day as one of the greatest saints of the 8th century and is remembered with devotion and affection for her faith, piety and patience. The great woman mystic, saint and Qalandar of Islam had conquered herself (Nafs) through devotion, meditation, contemplation, patience (Sabr) as well as fear and trust in God. (Tawwakul). Hazrat Rabia Basri (ra) was constantly absorbed in the thought of God and had reached the pinnacle of mystic path i.e Fina-Fillah.
Praise from Hazrat Fariduddin Attar (ra)
Hazrat Fariduddin Attar (ra) praises her unparalleled status as a female Sufi saint emphatically in the Conference of the Birds :
- No, she wasn’t a single woman,
- But a hundred men over:
- Robed in the quintessence of pain
- From foot to face, immersed in the Truth,
- Effaced in the radiance of God,
- And liberated from all superfluous excess.
He also praises Hazrat Rabia (ra) in his Tazkirat al-Awliyā (Memoirs of the Saints):
|“||That noble recluse who dwelled behind the cloisters of God’s elect, a matron of sanctity beneath sincerity’s veil, on fire with love, totally consumed with yearning, arduously enraptured by God’s proximity, that apostle of Mary’s purity, acknowledged by all men was Rabia al-Adawiya God’s mercy rest upon her.||”|
He has also written, “Both in terms of her spiritual transactions (mo’amalat) and gnosis of God (ma’refat) Rabia was unexcelled in her time and was accredited by all the great men of her age.”
Even though she is said to have belonged to the tribe of Al’Atik, whose lineage is traced back to Hazrat Nuh (as), Hazrat Rabia (ra) was born into a family of poor circumstances. Hazrat Fariduddin Attar (ra) relates her story in Tazkirat al-Awliyā: On the night Hazrat Rabia (ra) came into being it is related that there wasn’t even a wrapping on hand to swaddle her with, nor a lamp, nor a drop of oil to anoint her navel. Her father possessed three daughters and Hazrat Rabia (ra) was the fourth (ar-Rabia); thus, was she named Rabia. His wife told him: ‘Go to the neighbour’s house and ask them for a lamp and some oil.’ Although Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) father had already vowed not to ask anything of God’s creatures, he arose, went next door and then returned telling his wife only, They are all asleep.’ He then fell asleep, deeply grieved and heavy hearted and while he slept he dreamt that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ came to him and said,
|“||Do not be grieved. You have been blessed with a daughter who will be a great saint; her intercession will be wished for by seventy thousand of my community. Tomorrow send a letter to ‘Isa Radan, Amir of Basra, reminding him, by this sign, that every night he is wont to offer one hundred benedictions to me, and on Friday night, four hundred. But this Friday he has neglected me so tell him that, as a penance, he must give you a hundred dinars.’||”|
Waking at dawn, Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) father, in tears, noted his dream down in a letter, went to the court of ‘Isa Radan, and handed it to a chamberlain to give to the Amir. After reading the letter, ‘Isa Radan commanded that ten thousand dinars should be distributed to the poor as a thanksgiving offering since the Prophet deigned to mention me.’ Ordering that four hundred dinars be given to Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) father, he commented:
|“||Though I wish that such a person should come to me, rather I will come and sweep the dust from his doorstep with my beard. For God’s sake though, whenever he is in need, please let me know.||”|
And so Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) father brought home the gold and spent it.
After Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) parents passed away, a severe famine arose in Basra, and all her sisters scattered while she fell into the hands of a cruel man who auctioned her off as a slave for a few dirhams. When a stranger approached her in the street one day, she became frightened and tried to flee but fell in the dust, breaking her wrist. Prostrating herself in the mud, she confessed:
|“||O God, I am a stranger, without father or mother; I have been sold in bondage, and now my wrist is broken. But despite all this, I am not distressed about anything that has befallen me. I only wish you to be content, so that I might know if I have gained your satisfaction or not||”|
She then heard an unseen voice tell her:
|“||Do not mourn, for in the hereafter you will reach such a rank that even those nearest to God in heaven will be proud of your station.||”|
Hazrat Rabia (ra) then turned to her master’s house and began to fast constantly, praying through each night. During the day she remained on her feet, occupied with her household chores. One night her master awoke and, hearing a cry, stared over to see Hazrat Rabia (ra) awake with her forehead bowed to the floor in supplication:
|“||‘O God, You are aware that the sole longing of my heart is to be totally surrendered to your command. The very light of my eyes is service to Your court. If it were up to me, I would never cease serving you, even for an hour. Yet you have caused me to be subject to a creature. For this, I come late to your service.’||”|
As she was immersed in prayer, a divine light enveloped around her. After witnessing this incident, her master rose and pondered to himself, ‘Such a woman cannot be confined to slavery.’ In the morning he summoned Hazrat Rabia (ra) and set her free, remarking, ‘If you remain with us, we shall all serve you; if you do not wish this to happen, go where you will.’ Hazrat Rabia (ra) asked for her leave and departed.
She subsequently devoted herself to various works of piety. Within every twenty-four hour period, she was said to perform a thousand rak’ats of the ritual prayer. She made a cell of seclusion for herself and occupied herself solely with acts of devotion. In the end, she set out on the pilgrimage to Makkah and retired to the desert.
The Question of Marriage
While she received many marriage offers she refused them as she had no time in her life for anything other than Allah and so remained celibate. Mohammad Ebn Solaiman Hashemi, the Governor of Baghdad, whose properties produced an income of eight thousand dirhams each day, once wrote to the nobles of Basra, requesting them to find him a suitable wife. They sought out Hazrat Rabia (ra) as a possible candidate. In answer to his request, Hazrat Rabia (ra) wrote to the Amir:
|“||“Just as abstinence (zuhd) in this world is a source of bodily comfort, likewise attention to the world results in worry and grief. Lay aside your excess wealth, dedicate your riches here to the life hereafter. Be trustee of your own soul now; do not let men administer and divide your wealth later on. Fast from life; let death break your fast. As for me, even if God were to place at my disposal as much as you offer, or even much more, it would not be possible for me to heed ought beside Him for as much as the wink of an eye.” “(Monawi, Tabaqat al-Awliya)”||”|
It is reported that even the renowned Sufi saint Hazrat Hasan al-Basri (ra) asked for her hand in marriage to which she replied:
|“||The marriage contract is bound to a ‘being.’ But here ‘being’ is absent. Of myself I am unaware; alone through Him I am, and under the shadow of His will I exist. My husband must be sought from Him.||”|
- How did you attain to this station? questioned Hazrat Hasan (ra).”
- Through losing all my attainment in Him. she replied.
- How do you know Him, then? Hazrat Hasan (ra) inquired.
- You know ‘how’, she answered. I know without ‘how’.
When asked by the people why she didn’t marry, she said:
|“||I have been left bewildered by worry over three things. If you free me from having to worry about them, I will marry. First of all, at the moment of death, shall my faith be sufficient to bring me to salvation? Second, will the book of my deeds be given to me in my left or right hand?1 Third, upon that hour when a party of people are called forth on the left hand to Hell, and another group from the right hand are summoned to Heaven, which company will I belong to?||”|
“Of this, we are ignorant,” they informed her. “With this anxiety that afflicts me then,” she replied, “how can I ever marry?” Shaikh Shoaib ibn Abdul-Aziz al-Horayfaysh in his book al-Rowdh al-Fa’iq, has added a fourth question to Hazrat Farid al-Din Attar’s (ra) account of this story: “When I am interrogated in the grave by the two angels of death, Munkar and Nakir, shall I be able to answer their questions or not?”
Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) Devout Way of Life
Hazrat Rabia (ra)’s nights were occupied in sleepless vigilance, and her days in the worship of God. It is said that she was deeply absorbed in grief and wept exceedingly.
The following account, attributed to Hazrat Rabia (ra) by ‘Abda Bint Abi Showal, a lady devoted to Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) service, is related in the Sifat al-Safwat of Ibn al-Jawzi:
|“||Hazrat Rabia (ra) used to pray all night, only then permitting herself to doze lightly before dawn until the shadow of daybreak tinted the horizon. Then she would rise and say, possessed by deep fear, ‘O soul, how long shall you go on with this sleeping and waking? The time is near when you will sleep so much that only the trumpet call of the Resurrection will summon you awake.’ This was her way of life until she died, extremely eager to maintain the night vigil unless some task arose that kept her from it.||”|
In the same work, Ibn al-Jawzi narrates Abdullah Ibn Isa’s account of his meeting with Hazrat Rabia (ra):
|“||When I entered Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) house, I perceived her face radiant with a brilliant sheen from her constant crying. A man sat near her, reciting a verse from the Koran concerning Hellfire, whereupon she burst out in tears, then she cried out and fainted.
Another time she was seated on a mat of woven reeds when we entered her presence. A man near to her was lecturing on some matter while her tears poured like rain onto the torn reed-mat. In sudden agitation she cried out. Then we all arose and took our leave.
Abdur-Ra’uf Monawi in the Tabaqat al-Awliya (Classes of the Saints) has also noted that Hazrat Rabia (ra) was “extremely fearful.”
Hasan al-Basri (ra) gives the following account of her nature:
|“||In her whole house I saw only a pitcher with a chip on its spout, which she used to perform ablutions as well as drink water, a brick which she used as a pillow, and a mat of woven reeds on which she prayed. Besides this, there was nothing else. Whatever people bestowed on her she rejected, saying, ‘I have no need of the world.||”|
Monawi writes in the Tabaqat al-Awliya that “Hazrat Rabia (ra) felt so ashamed before God that for forty years she never raised her head to heaven.”
Hazrat Malik bin Dinar (ra) has described Hazrat Rabia (ra)’s life-style as follows:
|“||I visited the saint. She possessed a pitcher with a crack in it which she employed both for ablutions and drinking; instead of a pillow, she used a brick. There was also an old straw mat. My heart was anguished at the sight, and I pleaded with her, ‘I have wealthy friends; only indicate it and I’ll see that they regard you favourably.’ ‘You are wrong Malik,’ she replied, ‘my Provider is their Provider too, isn’t He?’ ‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘Do you imagine,’ she rejoined, that He has forgotten the poor because of their poverty, while assisting the rich because they are wealthy?’ ‘No,’ I answered. ‘Since He is aware of my state then,’ she went on, ‘what need is there to remind Him? If this is how He likes it, my, wish is one with His.’||”|
Describing an overnight visit with Hazrat Rabia (ra), Hazrat Sufyan al-Thawri (ra) has written:
|“||I saw her enter her mihrab and occupy herself in prayers until daybreak. In the opposite corner of the house I also performed prayer till dawn. With the sunrise, she suggested we dedicate the rest of the day to fasting to express our gratitude for the grace through which we maintained the night vigil.||”|
It is related that Hazrat Rabia (ra) was engaged in continual wailing and lamentation. “For what are you weeping?” she was questioned. She confessed:
|“||My deepest fear is separation, for I have become accustomed to Him. Is it not possible that at the time of death a voice will come saying, ‘You are not worthy of Me?’||”|
She also said:
|“||Deep within my breast lies the reason for my bereavement and pain. This ailment no doctor can remedy. The sole cure of this pain is Union with the Friend, and by mourning I hope that perhaps hereafter I will reach what I seek. Though I was not originally conceived in that Divine Grief, I attempt to simulate the state of those who are truly afflicted with Divine Love, that I may be deemed no less than they.|
The prayer of Hazrat Rabia
Once while she was in the service of her Sheikh, she was sent on an errand. Along the way a man pursued her. In fright she fled, slipped and broke her hand. Praying to Allah Ta’ala she cried, “O Allah! I am forlorn, without mother and father. Now my hand too is broken. But I do not mind these things if Thou be pleased with me. But make it manifest to me that you are pleased with me. “
Once, Hazrat Rabia, overcome with tiredness, fell asleep. A thief entered and took her shawl, but he was unable to find his way out. When he replaced the shawl, he saw the exit. Again, he took the shawl and lost the way. He replaced the shawl and again saw the way out. He repeated this process several times.
Once when Hazrat Rabia was on a mountain, the wild beasts of the jungle gathered around her and stared at her in wonder. Coincidentally, Hazrat Hassan Basri appeared on the scene. All the animals scattered and disappeared into the jungle. In surprise, he said: “The animals fled when they saw me. Why did they stay with you?” Hazrat Rabia asked, “What did you eat today?” Hazrat Hassan Basri replied, “Meat and bread.” Hazrat Rabia then said, “When you have eaten meat, why should they not flee?”
It was said to Hazrat Rabia, “Hazrat Hassan says that if on the Day of Qiyamah he is deprived of Allah’s Vision for even a moment, he will lament so much that the inmates of Jannat will take pity on him.”
People asked: “Why do you not take a husband?”
She was asked, “From whence have you come and whither are you going?” Hazrat Rabia said: “I came from that world and I am returning to that world.” The people asked: “What are you doing in this world?” Hazrat Rabia let out a cry of lament. They asked, “Why are you lamenting?” Hazrat Rabia said: “I obtain my rizq (provisions) from that world while I am doing the work of this world.”
When asked for the cause of her constant crying, Hazrat Rabia said: “I fear separation from Allah Ta’ala. I fear that at the time of death, I may be rejected and it be announced, “You do not deserve to be in Our Presence.”
She was asked: “When is Allah pleased with a person?” Hazrat Rabia replied: “When he expresses gratitude for the effort (on His Path) just as he expresses gratitude for bounties.”
”As long as man’s heart is not alert, his other limbs cannot find the path of Allah. An alert heart is a heart lost in divine absorption. Such a heart is not in need of the aid of other limbs. This stage is called Fana (annihilation).”
Love of God
One day, she was seen running through the streets of Basra carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she said:
At one occasion she was asked if she hated Satan. Hazrat Rabia replied, “My love for God has so possessed me that no place remains for loving or hating any save Him.”
When Hazrat Rabia Basri would not come to attend the sermons of Hazrat Hassan Basri, he would deliver no discourse that day. People in the audience asked him why he did that. He replied, “The syrup that is held by the vessels meant for the elephants cannot be contained in the vessels meant for the ants.”
Once Hazrat Rabia was on her way to Makkah, and when halfway there she saw the Kabah coming to meet her. She said, “It is the Lord of the house whom I need, what have I to do with the house? I need to meet with Him Who said, ‘who approaches Me by a span’s length, I will approach him by the length of a cubit.’ The Kabah which I see has no power over me; what joy does the beauty of the Kabah bring to me?”
Then, having performed the pilgrimage, she returned to Basra and occupied herself with works of devotion.
One day Hazrat Hassan Basri saw Hazrat Rabia near a lake. He threw his prayer rug on top of the water and said, “Rabia, come! Let us pray two rakats here.” She replied, “Hassan, when you are showing off your spiritual goods in the worldly market, it should be things which your fellow men cannot display.” Then, she threw her prayer rug into the air and flew up onto it saying, “Come up here, Hassan, where people can see us.” Then she said, “Hassan, what you did fishes can do, and what I did flies can do. But the real business is outside these tricks. One must apply oneself to the real business.”
“Repentance which is only verbal is the act of liars. When a vain person repents, he should repent again (for the sin of vanity).”
Once Hazrat Rabia kept seven fasts and spent the entire night in Ibaadat. On the seventh day, someone presented her a bowl of milk. When she went to fetch the lamp, a cat came and drank the milk. She decided to break fast with water. When she brought a cup of water, the lamp was extinguished. As she lifted the cup, it slipped and broke. She drew a sigh and said, “O Allah! What are You doing to me?” A Voice said, “O Rabia! If you desire the bounties of the world, We shall bestow it to you, but then We shall remove Our love from your heart. Our love and worldly bounties cannot coexist in one heart.”
Once when Hazrat Hassan Basri went to visit Hazrat Rabia, he found one of the wealthy and prominent citizens of Basra standing with a bag of money, weeping at her door. On enquiring, he said, “I have brought this gift for Hazrat Rabia. I know she will refuse it, hence, I am crying. Do intercede for me. Perhaps she will accept it.” Hassan Basri went inside and delivered the message. Hazrat Rabia said, “Since I have recognized Allah, I have renounced the world. I am not aware of its source–whether halal or haram.”
Malik Bin Dinaar went to visit Hazrat Rabia. He found in her home only a partly broken jug which she used for wudhu and drinking water, a very old straw-mat on which she slept and a brick which she used as a pillow. Malik Bin Dinaar said, “I have many affluent friends. Shall I ask them to bring some items for you?”
Hazrat Rabia supplicated, “O Allah! My duty and my desire on earth are Your remembrance and in the Aakhirah, Your Vision. You are the Master. O Allah! Maintain the presence (i.e. concentration) of my heart or accept my ibaadat, devoid of concentration.”
When her time to depart from earth was near, the illustrious Mashaikh gathered by her. She said, “Go away and leave place for the Angels.” They all went out and closed the door. While they were waiting outside, they heard from within a voice reciting:
In a dream someone asked her, “What happened when Munkar and Nakeer came to You?” Hazrat Rabia said, “When they asked me, “Who is your Rabb?” I said, “Go back! Say to Allah: When You had never forgotten this weak woman despite Your remembrance of entire creation, how can she forget You when on earth You were her only remembrance? Why do you send Angels to question her?”
Muhammad Aslam Toosi and Nu’maa Tartoosi (R.A) stood at her graveside. One of them said:
From inside the grave, Hazrat Rabia (R.A) spoke, “May Allah grant me barkat (blessings) in what I have seen and am seeing (i.e. of the wonders of the spiritual realm).”
Ibn al-Jawzi, in the Sifat al-Safwat, relates the following story from Mohammad Ebn Amr:
|“||When I entered Hazrat Rabia (ra)’s presence, she was an aged woman of eighty years, brittle as dried skin. It seemed that if you touched her she would crumble to pieces. In her house I saw only a split reed-mat and a clothes stand of Persian reed, which was two meters wide. The covering of her house was of plain branches. There was also a water pitcher and a bit of sheep’s wool beside her bed and place of prayer. Next to these was a reed-mat on which she had placed her shroud. Whenever death was mentioned, she would tremble, visibly possessed by shivering. It is related that a pool of water from her tears lay gathered beside the place where she prostrated during prayers.||”|
In his Tazkirat al-Awliyā, Hazrat Farid al-Din Attar (ra) writes of Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) spiritual magnanimity:
|“||Concerning Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) death, great Sufi masters all averred: ‘Hazrat Rabia (ra) came into the world and went unto the hereafter; she never exalted or vaunted herself before God, never wanted anything, never saying, ‘Do so much for me’ or ‘Provide me with this.’|
There is no unanimity among scholars concerning the date of Hazrat Rabia’ (ra) death. Various historians offer differing accounts. The date 135 AH/753 AD is cited by Ibn al-Jawzi in the Shodhur al-‘oqud, Abul-Mahasen Taghriberdi in the Al-Nojum al-zahera, Mortadha Zobaydi in the Ittehaf al-sadat al amottaqin, Ebn al- Molqan in the Tabaqat al-Awliya, and Ebn ‘Emad Hanbali in the Shadharat al-dhahab. According to Dhahabi and Abdur-Ra’uf Monawi in the Tabaqat al-Awliya, Hazrat Rabia (ra) passed away in 180 AH/ 796 AD. Ebn Khallekan and Ebn Shaker al Kotobi in their biographical histories, and ‘Emad al-Din Abol-Fada’ Esma’il Ebn ‘Omar Ebn Kathir al-Qoraishi al- Demashqi (d.1373) in his book al-Bedayah wal-nahaya, put her death date as 185 AH/801 AD. The latter is also cited for Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) death by Dara Shokuh in the Safinat al-Awliya.
Ibn al-Jawzi, in the Sifat al-Safwat relates that at the time of her death, Hazrat Rabia (ra) summoned ‘Abda Bint Abi Showal into her presence and gave an order that none be informed of her death. She requested that she be shrouded only in an old gown (jubbah) for burial. Her servant faithfully complied with her request and clothed her corpse only in that gown, covered by the woolen cloak that was her normal garb. In Tazkirat al-Awliyā, Hazrat Farid al-Din Attar (ra) writes of Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) passing on (ra): During Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) last hours, the masters of her age gathered around her deathbed. She commanded, “Rise and make way for the prophets of God.” Rising, they left the room and shut the door. A voice was then heard declaring:
Nothing else was heard. The Sheikhs then entered and found that she had passed on.
Incidents after her Demise
Hazrat Farid al-Din Attar (ra) relates that after her death, Hazrat Rabia (ra) appeared in a certain person’s dream. Tell us of Munkar and Nakir, the two angels of death,” the person begged. Those two noble beings appeared to me,” she related, and asked, Who is your Lord?'” I said:
|“||Return and tell God… among so many thousands of people, You did not forget an old woman, and so, since I could never forget You who are all I have in the whole world, how then could You send someone to ask, Who is your Lord?||”|
Ibn al-Jawzi, in the Sifat al-Safwat relates that about a year after Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) death, ‘Abda Bint Abi Showal, a pious lady in Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) service, dreamt of her. Hazrat Rabia (ra) appeared attired in a green silken gown embroidered with gold and silver. ‘Abda had never before beheld anyone more beautiful. “What happened to the old gown and woolen cloak that we buried you in?” the girl asked. Hazrat Rabia (ra) answered:
|“||I swear by God, those garments were taken away from me, and then I was garbed in that which you see now, while my former shroud was folded, sealed and borne aloft to a sublime spot so that my reward would be perfect on the Day of Resurrection.”||”|
“Was this the reason for all your spiritual combat (mujahida) during your days on earth?” asked ‘Abda. Hazrat Rabia (ra) answered, “What is even this compared to what I have seen of God’s generosity to His friends.”
“Whatever became of ‘Abda, Abu Kalab’s daughter?” ‘Abda inquired.
“Ah, far, far beyond me is the station she attained,” Hazrat Rabia (ra) responded, “Never shall I approach her.” ‘Abdah pressed, “But how is this, since your spiritual state was higher than hers?” Hazrat Rabia (ra) rejoined, “Because she did not concern herself with how she passed her days and nights.”
“And of Abu Malek Zaygam,” ‘Abda continued, “whatever became of him?” Hazrat Rabia (ra) replied, “He makes pilgrimage to God, the Exalted, whenever he wishes.” ‘Abdah further inquired concerning Bashir Ebn Mansur.
“His state is happy,” answered Hazrat Rabia (ra), “for God has bestowed upon him more than he ever aspired to.”
‘Abda in the end requested Hazrat Rabia (ra), “Provide me with some admonition so I may draw closer to God.” Hazrat Rabia (ra) counseled her, “Devote yourself totally to the remembrance of God, for only this shall cheer you in the grave.”
On another occasion, Muhammad ibn Aslam al-Tusi (ra) and Na’mi Tartusi (ra), who were known to have provided water for thirty thousand people in the desert, once visited Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) grave. They asked, “O you who boasted you would never lower your brow before anyone in the two worlds, how are you now?” They were answered by a voice saying, ‘How sweet indeed was what I saw!'”
Some seem to have confused the grave of Hazrat Rabia (ra) of Syria with that of Hazrat Rabia al-‘Adawiya of Basra (ra). Hazrat Rabia’s (ra) grave is sometimes said to be at the top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. This, however, is incorrect. Hazrat Rabia al-‘Adawiya’s (ra) tomb is actually in Basra.